The Intrinsic Perspective's subscriber writing: Part 3
The last entry sampling the state of the 2023 blogosphere
After doing a call for paid subscriber writing last August, I promised to read all submissions, find some quotes or excerpts, and share the links here. Having received well over 100 submissions, it was broken into three parts—this is the final and last (originally planned for December; sorry for the delay to anyone who was waiting). It was fun to read widely so much subscriber writing, and I found plenty of things I never would have seen otherwise. At the same time, this process took a long time to do, and also to get out. I’ll make sure to do another one… much later this year.
But please, make use of that work: dive in and find a few choice things to read. There’s plenty of gems, from WWII veterans defending the importance of psychological repression, to essays answering who was the greatest mass murderer of all time (Mao), to the importance of leisure time for scientific breakthroughs, to short stories, to how cooking can’t be reductively understood. Bon appétit.
1. “In Defense of Repression” at Litverse by Blaise Lucey, on the rise of therapy, that takes the form of a book review of a work by an older psychiatrist, Ernest Becker, who argued that, basically, therapy was bad for you.
Ernest Becker, born 1924 to Jewish parents who emigrated to Massachusetts, was a World War II veteran who had liberated a Nazi concentration camp. After a stint as a dignitary in France, he got his PhD in 1960 and taught in the psychiatry department of Upstate Medical College in Syracuse, New York. He witnessed the industrial incarceration of patients subject to a psychiatry that his close friend and colleague, Thomas Szaz, described as a new kind of totalitarianism that corrupted mental health institutions and turned patients into prisoners. Both men lost their jobs for their views.
Psychiatry, in the sixties, was government business. With the horrific experiences of World War II in the back of his mind, it is then no wonder Becker claims repression is necessary for survival and systemic therapy does more harm than good. In The Denial of Death, we see a charmingly contrarian confidence that tell us that repression is a process that gives us power over our experiences.
2. “Mao's Great Famine” by Ethan Edwards, on who the ignominious winner of the “historical figure to murder the most people award” really is: Mao. Definitely Mao.
Dikötter begins the book with his intention to counter this counter, and put the Great Leap Forward in the same camp as the mass killings that “took place under Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin.” Although his title includes the word, he fears that the term famine “lends support to the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs.” The book, based on previously restricted and unexamined archival records, is supposed to correct this, revealing that the Great Leap Forward was yet another man-made atrocity directed from the top, and probably the worst one ever.
3. "The Codex of Dead Things” by Owen Wiseman, a poem on the civilizational danger of knowledge itself:
Should we squander our current circumstances then the gate
Of science will be closed to us, our efforts turned away
We came from monkeys, and to monkeys hence we shall return
4. “Why are literature and philosophy such an awkward match?” by Sheon Han was published in The New Republic. It’s actually a review of Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories, a book of short stories edited by Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel—all of whom are professional philosophers.
The anthology’s best examples, though, show that certain philosophical concepts are often better articulated by good storytelling than the mechanical exactitude of expository philosophy. Good philosophical science fiction is not a naturally occurring species, but the best examples remind us that when the double helix of literature and philosophy are successfully intertwined, it feels as if they have always belonged together.
5. “Mission-Based Nomadism” by Harrison Moore argues that being an ethical digital nomad means committing to actually participating in the culture around you, rather than just taking it all in as a tourist.
Nomads’ expectation that conversation be conducted in English and that local food be tweaked to satisfy the nomad palate is fuelling local peoples’ resentment and hurting nomadism’s image. Photos are being shared online showing local people living in the street having been forced out of their homes, and anti-nomad graffiti telling nomads they are “fucking disgusting” and that they should “leave.”
6. “The Involution of Everything” by R. W. Richey is a generalization of an essay by Scott Alexander arguing that
movements go through four phases: precycle, growth, involution, and postcycle.
In the precycle phase people join the movement out of love, and it’s probably inaccurate to label it a movement, it’s just something a few people do. But at some point the excitement felt by those initial people starts to spread to the wider world. . .
As the movement grows it takes on the characteristics of a “status Ponzi scheme”. As long as there’s new people joining the movement and territory still to be claimed there’s plenty of status for everyone, and no reason to compete. But like all Ponzi schemes eventually you run out of new people. All the people granting status expect to receive status and there are no new entrants to provide it. Accordingly, things start to collapse.
Richey expands this sort of thinking to nations, and even entire civilizations.
7. “I don't want to be happy, I want to have an interesting life” by Mateus Camillo is about the choices that digital nomads make, and Mateus notes that asking if life choices makes you happy is the wrong question.
Routine ordinary life gives me chills. I somehow envy those who are happy with it. Maybe comparing levels of happiness and life satisfaction will never be possible. I'd like to know if I'm more or less satisfied. The best we can do is compare with other moments in our lives and our choices. . . . I don't want to be happy, I want to have an interesting life.
8. “What is New about New Media Art?” by Lake explores an idea close to my heart: that of the intrinsic perspective, the very name of this newsletter. Drawing on my own work as well as his thoughts about how new media can provide even more “intrinsic” types of artistic experience, Lake writes:
. . . literature embraces the idea of intrinsic perspective, using words to convey what it is like to be someone who is not you. Novels and poetry thus provide a framework through which intrinsic perspectives can be explored or described, but not experienced. Traditional visual mediums like painting and sculpture are similarly constrained: they remain unable in most cases to show the "inside view" on a scene. Representational art has an inherently fixed point of view. Even the movements that began to play with perspective (mainly 19th-20th century movements such as Impressionism, Cubism or Surrealism, etc) are optically processed as snapshots of a scene, just a surreal scene.
9. “All Because He Was Afraid of Penguins” is a short story by Benjamin Kerschberg about a uniquely challenged aspiring zoologist:
Living at the zoo, Jonathan had friends everywhere he turned. He named them all. Lawrence perked up whenever he saw Jonathan approach. The boy’s warmth allowed the lion to remember life before captivity. Jonathan never realized he had this gift. He just knew that Lawrence was kind to him, even inviting Jonathan to roll in his grass. There were lemurs, giraffes, hippos, peacocks, and reptiles. He knew them all and they knew him.
10. “The Hidden Complexity of Thought” by Isaac King, on why hard skills are so easy to explain, but soft skills so hard to explain.
The technical term for this is Kolmogorov complexity; the length of the shortest computer program that can do what you want. The shortest program that can perform long division is much shorter than the shortest program that can competently navigate human social interaction.
This is why experts in "hard skills" tend to be good at explaining them to others, while experts in "soft skills" tend to be bad at explaining their craft. Hard skills experts come to their expertise via conscious reasoning; they understand the subject matter on a step-by-step level, and can break it down for others. . . . When someone is asked to explain why they're so charismatic, they'll often stumble and say things that boil down to "just say nice things instead of rude things". They don't actually understand why they behave they way they do; they just behave in the way that feels right to them, and it turns out that their unconscious mind is good at what it does.
11. “Enter Label: Failing upward with inspiration from Ross Ulbricht, Moses, Anne Lamott...” by Rebecca, on thoughts sparked after writing to Ross Ulbricht in jail.
In 2015, Ulbricht was found guilty for trafficking narcotics (including stuff like cyanide) and various other criminal conspiracies. I had followed his story back in 2015 after reading a Wired article on a flight. At sentencing, asking the judge for leniency, Ross said this:
Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself before I meet my maker.
He got the book instead, sentenced to life plus 40 years.
12. “On Technology Addiction” by Giacomo Catanzaro applies a lot of the same reasoning about addiction and stress that can be used for traditional addictions, like drugs, to technology addiction.
Over the past decade, there have been widespread reports of growing addiction to technology and social media in particular with teenagers spending upwards of 7 hours a day on social media on their phones. Various studies have claimed there is a relationship between social media use and increases in depressive symptoms (e.g. Perlis+2021), while others have argued there is no link (e.g. Cunningham+2021). While the psychological effects of technology addiction are debated, its impact on worker productivity is substantial. A recent report in the Harvard Business Review notes that a single person switches between apps and windows more than 3,600 times in a given day. After one is distracted, it takes a substantial amount of time to regain focus (10-20 minutes, i.e. the true cost of multi-tasking) and so many workers are distracted for the majority of their day.
13. "We need capitalism 2.0 to fix the environment” by Michael Huang argues that only by moving to a kind of “natural capitalism” can we overcome our environmental challenges, and that other solutions simply won’t work.
A post-growth society is unrealistic. Those who’ve eaten meat do not automatically go vegan. Those who drive would not choose to walk on foot. Those who enjoyed air-conditioning would not prefer to live in heat. If you want a post-growth society, you have to convince a planet of humans to abandon their amenities and lower their life quality by their own volition. And you have to redistribute resources globally in a massive scale so that the abandonment of industrial technologies would not screw over the hunger-stricken and poverty-fested third world. One does not simply revert modernity.
14. “It’s the Culture, Stupid! No. 37” by Michalis Xenopoulos is a retrospective of a 1993 article by Samuel P. Huntington in Foreign Affairs.
When one approaches ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ charitably, it becomes clear that much of the response to it is reflexive. The author is forthrightly Western in his outlook but at no point does he slide into condescension. He warns that the period when Western civilisation was history’s main mover and shaker has come to an end. It now faces rivals who will not be content as extras in a Western drama. They will exercise agency by using modernity’s tools to pursue their own ends. He urges the West to find a long-term formula of coexistence with the rest, because they are not going anywhere.
15. “Can we measure Happiness?” by Dario Marino and Alessandro Riva concerns the attempt—perhaps futile, perhaps of utmost importance—to quantitative that qualitative thing: happiness.
The claim to which the success of the paper is owed is that, while rich people tend to be happier than poor people within a country, no such relationship is found between rich and poor countries. Thus, the paper has since become a sort of manifesto for the “GDP doesn’t matter” line of thinking championed still today by many degrowthers.
It’s unfortunately quite irrelevant that the paper has been debunked, because its main idea (which wasn’t even claimed by Easterlin himself) that GDP growth won’t make us happier (even though, it will) has permeated a sizeable fraction of the public.
16. “Iron deficiency” by Mark Dolan uses Oppenheimer (the movie) as a springboard to talk about the cosmic origins of iron and what “we are all made of stardust” really means.
Under the right conditions, stars get to the point (if they are large enough) where they start making iron. Everything goes pear-shaped when stars begin trying to fuse the iron. Almost instantaneously, the star stops generating energy and there is not enough gravity to hold up the gases at its outer edges. This is mostly because all the fusions before have always PUSHED energy outward, iron PULLS energy from the outer star inward. The star collapses violently (and rapidly) and we get that wonderful astronomy word, a supernova. EVERYTHING from Hydrogen to Uranium with lots of Iron which composes the core of the star when things go badly explode with unimaginable energy. When someone shares the wonderful expression WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARDUST, this is how it happens! The special nature of iron as the first atom when you fuse it and it doesn’t release energy is what causes all the ruckus!
17. “Listen, Memory” by Charles Schifano, a reflection on how the internet age has changed us all—adding serendipity, yes, but at what cost?
There was a time when I knew the source for all my information. For whatever I happened to be bloviating about on a particular day, I could always tell you where I read or heard the story. All of the facts in my head came with citations. But this is, unfortunately, no longer true, so I end up still having a good memory for names and quotes and stories although I don’t always have a coordinating memory that tells me how I know those things. And this often triggers a vertiginous moment, such as when I have a vivid recollection of a restaurant or a conversation, yet I can’t quite pinpoint the country in which it occurred.
18. “A Year Without You” by Tessa Alexanian is on the realities of grief after her partner died in a biking accident—and the fact that no model, whether it be a mental one or an AI simulacrum, can replace the loss of a real person.
. . . your existence was far more inspiring than your death. You don’t live on as an advisory angel on my shoulder, nor as anguish I can burn to fuel a pursuit of a better world. I do not think “I should do what Zach would do” or “I should be someone Zach would be proud of” nearly so often as I think “I wish I could ask Zach about this”. You are missing from the world, and I cannot seem to make you larger or more real.
Is this a standard stage of grief? Kübler-Ross is dead, too, but her collaborator wrote a book claiming that the sixth stage of grief is finding meaning. I have not reached that stage. Your death was pointless. An accident that underscored how fragile bodies are. It is so obvious that the world would be better (that I would be better) if you hadn’t died. You can see why I might struggle to find meaning, there.
19. “How long can you live in isolation from yourself?” by Spencer Orenstein Lequerica is about loving language—but also about how first-generation immigrants use language to differentiate themselves from their past, what that can mean, and how language can be a bridge back too.
Outside of asking for croquetas or empanadas, Spanish didn’t really seem relevant. Until my mom got sick. . .
Here’s the very short version: an unknown virus attacked my mom’s brain when she was 34. The mystery virus caused lesions on her brain, leading to brain surgery and the removal of much of her frontal lobe.
I was six and couldn’t deal with this complete fabric shift in my reality. So I started to turn away from everything that I associated with my mom.
My mom loved the beach, so I refused to go in the water.
My mom loved cats, so I decided cats were evil gremlins.
My mom’s native language was Spanish, so I shielded myself in a suit of English armor.
20. "Architecture in the Age of Now” by Connor Patrick Wood uses Boston of an example of the unpleasantness of a lot of our current architecture.
If we analogize culture and society with biological life (something that many of my academic colleagues and mentors in the evolutionary human sciences are quite happy to do), the Architecture of Right Now begins to look less like a tasteless mistake and more like a grotesque kind of thanatos: the Freudian urge toward death.
21. “On Incoherency” by Fionn O'Sullivan gives what is effectively a theory of what inconsistency is—and why it can be good. Reminded me of Keat’s “negative capability.”
Someone professes to believe something, but their actions do not match up. A body in a governing federation or union pursuing an alternative agenda. Someone encouraging you to be kinder towards yourself, but sensing they rarely talk to themselves that way. A CEO cutting corners putting immense pressure on employees while dedicating their money to philanthropy. Carbon offsetting. An unempathetic empathy researcher. Faking data in studies on honesty. Passive aggressive messages from someone with a progressive social media profile.
22. “Happiness Is Bullshit” by David Pinsof argues exactly what it sounds like—that happiness is just this vague PR motivator for our real primate-like urges.
The actual motives of human primates are pretty unflattering, and we would prefer not to talk about them. That’s why we pretend that happiness (or self-actualization or whatever) is the reason for everything we do. It’s the perfect PR story. We run cancer marathons not to show off our health and virtue, but because we find it “rewarding.” We help our friends not to make them feel indebted to us, but because we’re “happy” to do it. “So glad you could make it,” we say to the asshole. “Happy to take care of it,” we say to our boss. We tell people we want to be happy because it sounds good. Or at least, it sounds better than the truth.
23. “In Competition with G-d? An Author's Backstory” by Melissa Mills is her first post on Substack, and was apparently motivated by this very call for submissions, which I was happy to hear.
Much later she learned a word for this kind of understanding. It was ineffable, an understanding that can’t be put into words. It can’t be put into words because it is the source of words. It can’t be known because it is the source of knowing.
24. “Superbike” by Everett Upright is a short story about a meeting between a young runaway and an escaped convict:
The kid waggled his handlebar so that his front wheel made a rut in the gravel. He had a backpack on with a plastic canteen hooked on it.
“Hey—whadja think if I could get a drink?”
The kid stopped and stood up astraddle. He pulled the canteen around and unscrewed it, then held it out to the inmate.
The inmate drank loudly and finished with a deep gasp. He handed the canteen back to the kid.
“You keep drinkin that, too.”
“I know,” the kid said. He tipped up the canteen and drank.
25. “Notes Towards a Post-Avant Pastoral Language” is a poem by Billy Youngblood (and it kind of feels like a good high-tech pastoral poem, I must say):
Slowly, the party comes to realize the nature of
the predicament. Contractors are already
drawing up plans for condominiums and phoning in
requests for environmental impact reports. A faun
emerges from the bathroom and scrapes his hooves
clean on the edge of the carpet and the tile. Fixing you
with his eyes as deep and absolute as cosmos, his voice rich
and mellifluous, the purest embodiment of cable news, he intones:
“Your breakfast was dictated by the need of a man to sell bacon,
your daily rituals of cleanliness by a surplus of bath soap and shampoo,
your war by the need of your nation to be at war.”
26. “The End of All Things” by Grant Shillings on what separates AI from other previous threats in the past—its intelligence—which, Grant points out, is also our own defining quality. His solution to the problem is also much like my own: the first step is not some over-complicated “solving” of alignment (if that can even be solved) but rather just awareness-raising.
The biggest threat we ever faced as a species was the threat of nuclear holocaust, but we survived that because of the large amount of discussion generated around the topic. People were aware of the issue, were terrified about it, wrote stories about it, talked about it, wrote their congressmen about it. We need to do the same.
In my world of emergency medicine, there is an crucial first step in any disaster scenario. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a hazardous material leakage, a uncontrolled fire, a terrorist attack, or an act-of-god like a hurricane, earthquake, or flood. Before you do anything, before you make a plan, before you call for backup, the most important step is this:
Recognize that This. Is. A. Disaster.
27. “no. 74: double starching” by TW Lim, a skeptical but open look at the idea that something almost semi-mystical goes into good food that makes cooking something beyond merely combining ingredients.
Google Scholar now has a sheaf of papers on the effect of pressure cooking rice, but none of the sushi chefs whose advice I was reading had read them. When Jiro Ono (of Jiro Dreams of Sushi) weighs down the lid of his rice cooker like it’s going to blow away, or turns the fire up or down, he’s not doing it because he has an explicit understanding of the physical and chemical processes by which the rice takes on firmness, fullness, and luster, but because he trusts in his attention to detail. There’s a level on which cooking rice is a matter of ritual. Cooking as a field of knowledge doesn’t transcend human understanding, but cooking as an activity almost always transcends the understanding of the cook, and this is important.
28. “The Importance of Inferring Intention” by Andrew Lyjak is about intentions, and argues that not only that our blindness to intentions pose a significant problems, but that organizations, corporations, even nations, can be described as having intentions. He draws on a source I happen to be rather familiar with to make his case:
Causal emergence as a concept was coined by Erik Hoel and his coauthors and shows how in certain cases higher scale representations of a system have more causal predictive power than their underlying lower scale representations. So what I’m proposing is that certain collectives are best described using a higher scale representation of agency, and that representation has more causal power than viewing the collective as the sum of its parts. Indeed, if in reference to causal emergence, collectives are in some cases best described as individual agents, the reverse may be equally as true. Are there cases when individual agents are better described as collectives?
29. “Death, religion, and a Salvia Trip” by Nolan Yuma, about drugs, yes, but this is a springboard to talk about theology: “It seems that as societies grow bigger, so do their gods.”
Where the fuck is my body? It's gone, and I want to scream, but I have no mouth, and the only sound I hear is a voice I've known all my life. . .
"This is the truth," it says. Its voice is glacial and distant. The voice is Death. . .
"Your life has been a dream until now," the voice says.
"I don't care," I scream, and I continue to try and pull away from the others, but as I look at what I am, I realize there are no others, just other strings of energy working on expanding the universe.
"My family. I need my family," but this time, my voice doesn't come from the strings of energy, and it softens until it drifts into nothingness.
"Your family was a dream. This is the truth." . . .
I'm back on my couch on 777 Cardero Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, with my friends Kenny and Bam holding onto me.
Drugs aren't always fun.
30. “AI Writing is Dead” by Aastha Jain Simes is a comparison between her writing and an AI trying to mimic her, and she points out something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is that the use of AI writing contains some sort of paradoxical core where it’s extremely difficult to get what you would out of normal writing from it.
Why can’t AI’s essay make references to Dee Hock, or Charlie Munger, or any other subtle observations? It sure can if I prompted it. But how can I prompt it if my mind didn’t make this reference at the time of the prompt?
31. “Aging Gracefully is Boring!” by Sam Crespi, on embracing the real purpose of aging: the accumulation of wisdom.
Aging should be about aging with sass. Spiciness, humor.. a chunk of that about ‘yeah, look at me.. Wearing your wrinkles as stories. Respect the emotional quotient of years of aging. Tell me about the courage you found when the odds were against you. I want to know about the energy that carried you through the hard times. What you overcame. How you loved. Mourned. How you were changed by life.
While living in Italy for several years, I met a number of strong, funny, joyful, ‘older’ women. Some were pretty plump. Others not so much. I met them in France and England. They were respected, supported by their families and community. They teased the young. Bossed them around. Told amazing stories.
32. “Against the Term ‘Creator’” by Max Nussenbaum on the totalizing, obliterating effect of the term “creator” for everyone producing “content” online. As a “creator” myself, I had a lot of sympathy for this. And it made me wonder if we are being too hard on the youth for their dreams of being influencers—maybe they mean something incredibly broad by that!
“Creator,” like its predecessor “creative,” is notably agnostic as to what the things actually being created are. What does a creator create? They create content—that other gross word of this ilk that is almost comically generic, and whose metastasization over the past few years is a sign of something deeply troubling in our culture.
33. “Rest” by Rohit Krishnan makes the case that intellectual advancement requires long periods of leisurely deep thought, and that this is a vanishing activity in a world of emails, brief academic sabbaticals, and grant hunting that the modern scientist cannot escape.
Isaac Newton did some of his most important work during the year Cambridge closed for the Great Plague in 1665-66, producing the principles of calculus, optics and gravitational theory. Albert Einstein worked at the patent office for 7 years after college before his "miracle year" of breakthroughs in 1905. Charles Darwin spent 5 years traveling the world on the Beagle voyage, crucially important for formulating his theories of evolution.
34. “Living the Transnational Literary Life” by Xu Xi was published in LitHub, about a life spent as an itinerate writer and teacher of creative writing.
I still do live at the PO, at zip code 12962, a rural enclave served by a tiny post office on Route 22B. These days, I no longer “live” there for such long stretches, since I no longer fly between New York, Hong Kong, and the South Island of New Zealand with such alacrity, a routine that forced me to park mail there for months at a time to satisfy the IRS’s need for a “primary residence,” regardless of where I’m really living. . . . When I first obtained my super-sized PO box, the postmistress was a friend of my American aunt who lived at a neighboring zip, 12901, in a city you might mistake for a town or village Norman Rockwell might have painted. . . . The United States Postal Service, like the IRS, eschews the possibility of living in three places simultaneously.